This was a thoughtful, quiet historical novel about the real life Mary Anning, told in alternating points of view between Mary and Elizabeth, a (fictional) spinster who becomes interested in hunting fossils as well. I actually knew about Mary Anning not from Clark’s many dinosaur books, but from a book I recalled purchasing and shelving for the library (there are several good kids’ books about her.) My household’s extreme interest in dinosaurs did increase my interest in this novel. If you don’t know-Mary Anning found the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton in the 1800s. She was only a child at the time!
In a nutshell the story is about Mary and Elizabeth’s unlikely friendship, their passion and knack for finding fossils, and the struggles they faced in that situation as women. Here’s what I found absolutely the most fascinating thing about this:
As much as I’ve read about dinosaurs in the past year, and marveled at how paleontologists can ever manage to find anything, much less put it together, I had only thought a little bit about what it was like for the first discoveries. How on earth did people know what things were? I mean, if you found a T. Rex bone now, you could compare it to others that were found and cataloged as such. But in the 1800s? Uncharted territory! So that right there is an incredible thing to ponder. Now here’s the thing I never considered before, but is given a good amount of coverage in this story–that these findings were actually controversial because they flew in the face of everything that was believed about God and Creation. I found this absolutely fascinating. Also how women were kept out of scientific discussions. Interestingly I just started Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman, which immediately (in the forward) goes into this same thing. Obviously I knew that Darwin faced challenges and that the concept of evolution was offensive to many of the devout. However, what is explained here is how Mary had trouble getting people to see that that what she had found was something that was different from creatures that currently existed, that it was something that had once existed but no longer did. Did that mean God made a mistake and was fallible? Did that mean Bishop Ussher’s calculations, accepted as Gospel, of the Earth’s age was incorrect? Did God not make Earth in 6 days? This clash of science and religion is thoughtfully examined and presented in this story. This was not the fastest paced story I’ve ever read, but as I would expect from Tracy Chevalier, it was beautifully written, and it has really stuck with me.